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SXSW '13 Review: 'The Retrieval' is A Finely Crafted and Evocative Film

by Vanessa Martinez
March 18, 2013 9:54 PM
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The Retrieval, which premiered at SXSW this year, almost slipped under our noses prior to our preview of it a little over a month ago.  It’s a film well deserving of our appreciation and attention. Writer/director Chris Eska (2007’s August Evening) has crafted a very unique and cleverly scripted tale about a young boy named Will, played impressively by newcomer Ashton Sanders, who is sent along with his uncle Marcus (Keston John) by a gang of bounty hunters to retrieve Nate (Tishuan Scott), a wanted freed man. 

It’s an unexplored part of history dealing with slavery, especially on film; a complex and jarring dilemma of slaves who are promised a reward for capturing runaways and fugitive black freed men; these are oppressed slaves manipulated and many times coerced into turning against other slaves for monetary gain and survival.

The Retrieval is set during the Civil War, which serves as more of a backdrop. But it’s very much a character-driven narrative between the youngster Will and the seemingly hard-hearted Nate, a man who has undergone a traumatic separation from his wife, while fleeing up north with intentions of returning, and the loss of a child. Nate is reluctant to travel with the orphan Will and his uncle Marcus, as he should be. Their plan is to con Nate into going back to his hometown by telling him that his brother is sick and waiting to see him. There’s a carefully orchestrated plan, which will lead the bounty hunter gang to Nate’s recapture.

The young Will carries a guilty conscience; his uncle is hardly a father figure, and Will begins to seek the comfort and acceptance of the aloof Nate, more so after his uncle perishes during a Union/Confederate encounter. There are so many elements to the narrative crafted with authenticity and humanity. There’s survival, but there’s also the need for kinship, friendship and familial ties, even if such are the surrogate kind. These elements ultimately forgo survival at the very end, in a sense.

There have been comparisons to Django Unchained made on the web from articles written about the film, which I find perplexing. The Retrieval could not be more distinct in tone, style, and narrative in general.  It’s not an epic, grand scale production, but its quality is very competent, especially for a limited budget. The film is admirably photographed; its set design is striking, and its score is effective, adding to the significance of the film. But it would all be remiss if it weren’t for the nuanced and affecting performances by rather unknowns, especially Tishuan Scott and the young Ashton Sanders, which make the film truly compelling to watch.

Retrieval is more of an observant, quietly affecting tale, but a few of its scenes are suspenseful and pack their share of action; they are not necessarily brutal, although they are definitely believable. The film reeks of authenticity, which makes the viewing of it all the more intriguing.

Chris Eska’s sophomore feature film is a well-researched and relevant drama with instinctual and gripping performances, which should definitely garner some accolades along its festival run (Tishuan Scott won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for lead actor).  This resonant, gem of a film deserves no less than a “sleeper hit” status, along with theatrical distribution, and I’m particularly hopeful for the latter.

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  • RONDRICK | March 20, 2013 1:20 PMReply

    @ please-really & careycarey

    Let me clarify the color of my skin.
    I Am African-American! And I said your commentary is racist!
    You are making unfounded, uneducated, illegitimate comments without having seen the film.

    Watch it!

    Get off your bums and soap box and create your movies about our culture rather than being critics who have no substance or research of a film you've not even seen!

    LAUREN & RAYRAY ~ Keep US moving Upward.


  • CareyCarey | March 20, 2013 1:58 PM

    "You are making unfounded, uneducated, illegitimate comments without having seen the film"

    Excuse me, you're an African American? ** shrugging shoulders** and what does that have to do with the tea in China? I think you're totally off-base. What the heck did you read or surmise from "our" comments? I mean, I simply posted different perspectives. So, if you're prone to go-off every time someone voices a differing view "at the end of the day, when you believe in things you don't understand, then you suffer..........."

    ONWARD... FORWARD... do your thang, but be careful what you ask for.

  • CareyCarey | March 20, 2013 10:27 AMReply

    SOMEBODY CALL 911!.. I think there's a few dogs piling on a rabbit (below).

    I hope no one takes that coined phrase to heart, but ANOTHER1 & "PLEASE...REALLY?" are taking an ass-whoopin similar to the infamous Rodney King beating. But look up, It's A Bird... It's A Plane... It's Super-people from S&A's past. Actually it's...

    Are There Any Stories About Black People That You Think Should Only Be Told By Black People? by Tambay A. Obenson on 01.18.13

    Drop that in the indiewire search box (upper right corner). You'll find over 65 comments from MANY who are not racists or bigots, supporting Another1 and Please..Really's position. Look there and you'll find it fair.

  • lovedit! | March 19, 2013 1:45 PMReply

    this article is very accurate in it's praises. the film was absolutely beautiful in it's writing, filmmaking, and acting. the emotion behind young will's dilemma can resonate with anyone, regardless of the backdrop of the story. the fact that it took place during the civil war is (sort of) irrelevant, but with that being said, the director, along with cast and crew, took such great care to make it an authentic piece!! this is something people would know if they saw the film, and especially so if they attended the Q&A or read any information regarding the film.

    on another note, im not sure if i understand another1's comment. it does sound borderline (completely, actually) racist/bigoted, although im not sure of the intent of the comment. if any director or writer, regardless of race or ethnicity, wants to tell a story of any aspect of life, they should do so accurately and truthfully. as long as that is done, what's the problem? is art dictated by our race? do we only have jurisdiction over certain subject matter because of our race? i would hope not. if so, then we, as a society, have not gotten very far. art IS freedom of expression. perhaps, this same director had no business also writing/directing previous films in spanish and japanese, both of which told remarkable stories and recieved high praises and accolades, because he is white? that doesnt sound right, does it? AND...well said, Rondrick!!

  • saadiyah | March 19, 2013 1:14 PMReply

    This review has me wanting to see this film. Normally I would cringe at another slave movie, but this sounds totally different from the usual fare. I will definitely be looking out for it!

  • Ray Ray | March 19, 2013 10:21 AMReply

    I agree about people needing to get over the slave themed movies. I mean it is what it is, and slavery did happen. It's not like it's a farce story that is being created out of nowhere. It's just the "topic" for hollywood at the time, just like they went through and are still going through their zombie/vampire craze over the past 5 years as well. I KNOW I will be beat to pieces over this next comment but I think us blacks can sometimes be the problem when it comes to how we view our stories. Why do we always have to say black directors/writers should tell black stories, no white person should be able to tell our stories, blah blah blah. It really should be about the STORY. If a white person can get it right, what's wrong with it? We want our movies to be equal with all other movies, but we steady segragate ourselves. Why can't we just support good art regardless of who created it? If it's good, it's good. We know we're black, but why do we have to keep saying "we want to see good black movies from black people." But can't it just be "a good MOVIE, that happened to be made/created by a black person?" There is no WET(White Entertaiment Television) however white people still run "the system" and they put out projects that are predominately created, directed, acted and marketed towards white people. But us, we have to put "Black" or "African American" in front of everything, which already alienates us. We should just create and support what we consider to be good, and support it as a movie, and not a black movie specifically. We limit ourselves by alienating us as "Black". Now don't turn this around on me & say "I'm an idiot, blacks have gone through so much, we are not treated equal, so on and so forth." We have to rewire our own minds to know we ARE equal. Put it this way, what black person is going to go see "Zero Dark Thirty" if the studio releasing it and all the advertising it is called "Caucasion Film Studios" and blatantly suggeting it's for white people? Black people would be like "aw Heeeell naw, f*ck that movie, I'm not going to see it, let's start a petition to boycott." But then we create films and put "African American" all in front of it, and we want EVERY race to go see it because it's a universal story, and studios/investors should put money behind our good and often overlooked BLACK stories like they did in the 90s. What do we want? I'm not saying sell out, but we have to stop with some of this.

  • Another1? | March 19, 2013 7:50 AMReply

    Does anybody else have a problem with another white filmmaker bringing a slavery-themed movie to the screen? Aren't there enough non-slavery themed movies made by Black filmmakers out there to get picked up?

  • lauren | March 20, 2013 8:34 AM

    @Please...Really... So to extrapolate your credo further; only men should direct stories about men, only women should direct stories about women, only Polish people should direct stories about Polish people , ad nauseam. You do know that Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple don't you? As for Bollywood, those movies are an on going document to their caste system so don't know if that's a model for example and you're missing the obvious... The Civil War, slavery and all that's come afterwards is our (all races) collective American history, not just one. Yes there is still horrible shit going on and it's enough to make you bitter and angry but it's wrong to transfer that onto works of sincere art because of the color or culture of the artist. When we protest vehemently against being marginalized by society's narrow expectations of us and proclaim are capabilities of broader endeavors, be it the right to sing opera or country... we also have to accept that it's a two way street in the country you say you love more than anybody.

  • PLEASE...REALLY? | March 20, 2013 7:25 AM

    Any time somebody Black stands up for anything Black, we're racists? Really? Seriously? WE are not moving anywhere. Definitely NOT forward with the telling of OUR experience by anybody but US and the telling of OUR experience 500 years ago and not today. The Color Purple? Yeah, OUR story made by a white man. Whenever anybody else's $$$ is involved, they get to dictate the rules. I'm not borderline racist (look up the definition). I love US more than I hate anybody. 2013 don't mean a damn thing to US getting killed out on the street, put in jail more than anybody, unemployed 3 times as much as anyone else and still happy with being the sidekicks in everybody else's shit instead of them clamoring to be in our stuff. You don't see Bollywood begging for scraps, do you? You don't see the Asian film market worrying about what stories get told, do you? You know why? They take ownership of their own and don't support anybody else who tries to tell their experiences. The greatest of all time? By what standards? YOU and so many of the lost souls who think like you is why we are not moving forward.

  • RONDRICK | March 19, 2013 9:45 AM

    Well said, TRUTH FOR YOU!
    ANOTHER1? - your comments are borderline racist. Did You have a problem with THE COLOR PURPLE and the fact that the NAACP cost it to not win OSCARS due to vitriolic commentary and disdain for a white director who is one of the greatest of all time? Our history has not been told nor has the world of Cinema exhibited the history of America during those times. I'd suggest you watch the film before making insidious, racist, bigoted, and uninformed remarks. It's 2013! If not, then you can stand alone. WE are moving FORWARD!!!!!

  • truth for you | March 19, 2013 9:01 AM

    Get over it! A good movie's a good movie. And there's always another TP film out every few months that you could watch instead... or you can make your own.

  • No | March 18, 2013 11:39 PMReply

    I'll be on the look out for this.

  • Micah | March 18, 2013 11:00 PMReply

    Vanessa, thanks for bringing this film to everyone's attention. I'm definitely going to seek it out.

  • rolland | March 20, 2013 3:22 PM

    Vanessa: I am an african american. your review increases my desire to watch this movie. Thanks

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